“STEM Girls” – a project to encourage girls to pursue STEM careers

This text was written with the collaboration of Nicolly Figueiredo, my 11th year math student, at Polo Educacional Sesc in Rio de Janeiro. Thanks Nicolly!

Motivation:

On March 9, 2019, a Saturday, I was in New York City attending the FabLearn Conference, and in one of the hallways of the Teachers College (TC) at Columbia University a very polite lady asked me about the auditorium where the event was taking place.

We went together to the auditorium, sat in the upper circle, and in that morning Professor Paulo Blikstein announced that the 2020 FabLearn Lifetime Achievement Award would go to her, computer scientist Cynthia Solomon. Yes, the same very polite lady I escorted to the venue.

Cynthia is a pioneer in the field of Artificial Intelligence, Computer Science and Educational Computing. In partnership with Seymour Papert and Wally Feurzeig, she co-created the Logo Programming Language for children, in addition to countless other innovative actions involving technology.

Cynthia Solomon, co-creator of Logo and pioneer of technology in education

But when I met her that Saturday in the hallway at the TC, I did not recognized her. I knew the Logo Language, and whenever I heard about the impacts of this Language, here in Brazil, the emphasis was given to the work of the mathematician Seymour Papert.

In fact, Papert has an undeniable and extremely important contribution in the field of education through technology, in the creation of constructionist theory and in the metaphor of a Mathland, which has mathematics education as its focus. His work, and these themes, were always present in the lectures I attended when it came to the creation of Logo Language and educational technologies. But I did not hear, with the fair enphasis, the importance of Cinthia’s work.

Actually, here in Brazil, many people also don’t know the work of women in technology areas like Ada Lovelace, Grace Hopper and Dorothy Vaughan. This is something that must be fixed.

Returning to Brazil, I researched Solomon’s biography, and I was impressed by the work of this important computer scientist. I realized that maybe I did not know Cinthia’s work well because generally productions made by men have more visibility in society than the ones made by women.

I also understood that this happens because of an issue that is gaining more and more space for discussion in our society: the lack of female representation in different areas of knowledge, especially areas that involve computing.

At that time, I was studying for a Masters in Computing at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), where there is a university extension (project for social impact) called “Minervas Digitais”. “Minervas Digitais” is an extension project linked to the UFRJ Computing Institute focused on diversity and female empowerment in the areas of exact sciences and which carries out, among different initiatives, actions aimed at k12 education. I realized that it would be an opportunity to bring the discussion about gender equity and female representation to the school where I work.

Thus, in November 2019, we carried out a first action at our school, focused on female empowerment in the area of computing. I suggested that we invite the “Minervas Digitais” project to visit our institution and talk to some of our students. The action was a success.

“Minervas Digitais” – First action in 2019

From that moment on, I started to integrate this extension, with the aim for more girls and women to enter STEM  (Science, Technology, Engineering in Mathematics) areas, and with the intention of promoting the theme in different spaces of society.

The low female representation in these areas is an issue that has its origins in k12 education. It is during this school time that students generally make professional choices that will define the spaces they will occupy in the job market.

The article called “ABC of Gender Equality in Education”, from the OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development), presents the results of a survey carried out in 64 countries. The work highlighted that parents were more likely to expect their sons, rather than their daughters, to work in science, technology, engineering or mathematics.

The study also showed that only 14% of women entering university for the first time chose science-related fields, including engineering, manufacturing and construction. In contrast, 39% of men entered university for the same fields. This is significant not only because women are severely underrepresented in STEM fields of study and occupations, but also because graduates in these fields are in high demand on the job market, with salaries among the highest paid.

“STEM Girls” Project

In 2022, with face-to-face classes being normalized after the start of vaccination against COVID-19, I resumed the discussion that it is important that, during k12 education, girls can experience curriculum activities focused on computing and new technologies.

In our school, students have 7 (seven) elective subjects (through academic paths) aimed at STEM areas, and we observed that the number of girls in them was significantly lower than the number of boys. After observing this, we started a project called “STEM Girls” at school, with the aim of encouraging the presence of more girls in careers related to new technologies.

“STEM Girls” Project Meetings – 2022

An important Survey – “STEM Girls” Project

A student from “STEM Girls”, Nicolly Figueiredo, wanted to survey exactly how many students were enrolled in these subjects. So she did exploratory research to identify the reasons that led girls at school who chose STEM electives to do so.

Two procedures were used.

The first was the survey of the number of students enrolled in each of these 7 (seven) subjects, organizing the data related to gender.

The second was the application of a questionnaire so that the girls who opted for these subjects could report their school relationship with technology, how they feel about participating in the subjects and their desire to pursue a career in the STEM area.

Thus, the first step was to identify the number of students who are enrolled in subjects focused on the STEM areas of the school.

The survey showed that among the 105 registered, 76 are boys and 29 are girls. However, it was observed that some students chose more than one subjects in these areas.

By filtering the information to identify general numbers, considering the intersections of students who enrolled in more than one subject, the following data was obtained:

– Total individual enrolled in STEM subjects: 64

– Number of girls enrolled in STEM subjects: 22

– Number of boys enrolled in STEM subjects: 42

Through this survey, a questionnaire on the Likert Scale was organized to be applied to the 22 girls who participate in these subjects.  The form had the following answers: 1- I totally agree; 2-I agree; 3-I do not know; 4-I disagree; 5- I totally disagree.

The applied form had 10 statements directly related to the participation of girls in the subjects according to the table below:

Respondents’ statements

The figure presents the results obtained through the questionnaire with the statements presented in the table below.

When analyzing the data from S1, we observe that the respondents feel very safe when getting their hands dirty in the classroom. In relation to S2, we see that when stating about the number of girls in the class there is a division of the answers between agreement and disagreement, 50% each. The result shows the imbalance in the number of girls in the class.

Regarding experiences with educational technologies (S3), it is worth mentioning that the term Educational Technology was not made explicit, which implies the interpretation through the respondent’s own background. Still, there is a large percentage (14.3%) who say they do not know, which can be understood as a lack of knowledge of the term.

S4 shows that there is a percentage of more than 50% that disagrees or totally disagrees with the statement about adaptation, which suggests good adaptation in the environment.

According to the data obtained in S5, it can be inferred that most of the respondents had no contact with robotics or programming in elementary school , given that our institutios is only a high school.

In view of the answers obtained in S6, it is found that half of the respondents agree with the statement, although only 14.6% fully agree. Regarding disagreement, 14.6% said “I disagree”. It is worth mentioning that there is a percentage of 21.4% that answered “I do not know”, which exceeds the number of responses to “I disagree”.

S7 (I believe that my lack of interest in technology in elementary school is somewhat related to gender issues) highlights that half of the respondents say they agree or totally agree with the sentence presented, the majority being “I Totally Agree”. It is notable that 28.6% of the respondents said they did not know their opinion on the sentence, which highlights the possible need for discussions that promote the theme.

Analyzing the answers obtained in S8, we observe that there is a large percentage that claims to disagree with the statement and, therefore, at some point, related their choices to gender.

In S9 there is a strong agreement, more than 50% of the respondents claim to be motivated to take part in the IF because of curiosity. From this data, it is possible to deduce that the area is a new environment for the respondents, and they are curious to learn something that is not yet known.

In statement S10, which highlights the willingness to get involved with a career directly associated with technology, it is observed that agreement stands out, with 35.7% of the answers being “I totally Agree” and 14.3% “Agree”, a fact that may present an inclination of the respondents to the career due to the contact with the area. Still, it is possible to notice that the percentage “I do not know” exceeds the disagreement as a whole.

 Conclusion:

The first data obtained through this research was in line with what studies on gender equality in society show: the number of girls is smaller in relation to boys enrolled in STEM subjects in the initiatives available at school. Currently, female students represent approximately 34% of the total enrolled, pointing to the importance of the “STEM Girls” project for the institution.

Another important result was obtained through the questionnaire answered by the girls participating in these subjects. Their answers help to understand the motivations that led them to participate, the challenges they faced and how they see future possibilities, helping the project to propose actions to increase the number of girls participating in activities aimed at STEM areas.

Promoting initiatives in k12 education that provide students with an environment for reflection on the society in which they live is an important step so that in the future there can be more policies aimed at inclusion and equity, so that social justice can be developed.

In the future, these students will occupy roles in the job market and will be responsible for managing actions in the spaces they will occupy. Thus, awareness today is vitally important for the changes that are expected tomorrow.

I hope that the story I told at the beginning of this text is not something naturalized in our society, and that women who develop projects like Cynthia Solomon can always be highlighted when their discoveries and collaborations are presented.

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